Lighting the Fire Part 1

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                                                                                                        Lighting the Fire

                                                    “It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”
                                                                                                    --Sir Winston Churchill

Saturday, 08 Dec 2508
Coleridge Range, Regina
Georgia (Huang Long) System
00:27 hrs, local time

        The LZ was hot, and getting hotter by the minute. Michael Carter grabbed his charge by the man’s jacket and shoved him roughly behind some cover, hunkering down next to the Fed he’d been tasked to extract.
        “Who’d you sing to, mon ami?” Mike growled softly, his slow Cajun-tainted drawl more menacing than a shout.
         “No one. I swear!”
        Night jobs were tricky. Mines. Snares. Snipers. Ambush. The darkness hid all manner of nastiness for the unwary. Mike listened to the gunfire, heard the bullets whining overhead and thanked God the enemy was using hard rounds instead of lasers. Damned lasers were silent and had no muzzle flare to betray the shooter’s position. Mike shot a round into the air and triangulated the answering fire…
        Two on the left, one on the right.
        “Stay down, you.”
        “Hey wait—Where are you going?”
        “I said, stay down, you.” Mike cuffed the man hard and slipped off, flanking the snipers holding them down. Mike found the first in short order and took the man out with a knife to back of the neck, neatly severing the spinal cord. He picked up the sniper’s rifle, slung it across his back, and kept on going. Mike took the second man down like the first. The sniper’s comm squawked on his harness, asking for a sitrep. Mike left it unanswered. He had one more man to neutralize and his time had just run out. He took the rifle from the sniper’s dead hands and moved on. The third man, hyper-vigilant and spooked by the radio silence of his comrades, heard him coming. Mike flat out shot him, silence no longer a priority, ducking return fire from his target. Mike’s shot went wild, hitting the sniper in the gut, and the man went down. Mike closed the distance between them at a run, kicked the rifle free of the sniper’s hand, and shot him through the head at close range. The rifle joined the other two across his back and Mike hoofed it back to his charge.
        Frank Li was cowering right where Mike had left him. In the distance he heard the distinctive whine of a skiff on fast approach. Aerial coverage, infrared scanners, autofire guns. Death on high. Their LZ was a wash.
        Time for Plan B.
        “Come on, little man.”
        “What did you do, where are we—?
        “Shut up and keep up, or I’m throwin’ you back.” Mike hauled their asses out of there and cut cross-country for the next ridge over. The terrain was a jumbled mess of rock outcroppings and overhanging trees, a thermographic patchwork Mike hoped would be a nightmare to read on the scopes. He kept under the trees as much as possible, reckoning it might help mask their passage to the alternate LZ. Or it might not.
        The whine of the skiff followed on their heels.
        Looks like ‘not.’
        Mike broke comm silence and hailed his ride.
        “Bandleader, Tango. I need a new dance floor.”
        “Copy that.” Silence. Then: “Tango to dance floor three.”
        “ETA twenty minutes.”
        Mike cut the channel and pulled Li after him. A klik at a run in broad daylight and on flat ground would take six minutes, maybe a little less. Three kliks in the dark, through mountainous terrain, and dragging a spectator…
        Best not think about that. Just run.
        The whine of the skiff cut through his thoughts and tracer fire came right for them. Mike tackled Li aside and the bullets missed them. The skiff flew on and started circling for another pass.
        “Bouge!” Mike scrambled up, grabbing a fistful of Li’s jacket. “Move!”

        Captain Shyla Kramer of the Harbinger stood holding the comm for a second after the line went dead, blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. That LZ was supposed to be quiet. What the hell happened?
        The ship’s XO, Brian Connelly, and her pilot, Nika Earhart, both looked at their Captain. Nika’s gaze lingered on Kramer for a moment longer, and then she turned back to her job.
        “The alternate site is going to be tighter’n a virgin’s you-know-what, ma’am,” Nika said. “Comm chatter’s got a squad about equidistant from it as our package.”
        Connelly grimaced and added, “That squad’s going to divert. You know the ones chasing our package are going to call for reinforcements.”
        “Nika, get us within three kliks of that position,” Kramer made up her mind. “Nap of the earth, girl. Just the way you like it. Find us a place to settle.”
        The terrain just south of the alternate landing site consisted of high, steep hills perfect for ducking under sensor sweeps. This was going to be a rough ride. About eight kilometers from the LZ, a river had cut a channel that would take her to a good spot within two kilometers of their pickup, if she remembered the topo map right. A quick glance verified her memory. Although the benefits of their current hiding spot as a drop-off point for their contact had outweighed the problems incurred by switching mid-job to an alternate LZ, getting there from here was going to be a bitch. Still, the way she flew, this ship might as well be an extension of Nika Earhart’s body. As they lifted off, she brought up the starlight HUD. Navigating through the river’s bed was going to be dicey, at best... even with the electronic enhancement. “You people better strap down,” she warned the bridge crew, and to herself she added with a wicked little grin, “This is gonna be fun.”
        She kept Harbinger low in the air, skimming just above the treetops.
        Kramer took her pilot’s advice and keyed the comm to ship-wide. “All hands, secure your positions. Tight flying ahead.”
        Kramer’s cradling of the handset was punctuated by the sound of something scraping the hull.
        “Wuo de tian ah! How low are we, anyway?”
        Brian Connelly turned from watching the landscape flash by and regarded the youngster in the RIO seat. A greenie, he remembered, only eighteen years old and recently recruited off Heinlein. As a seasoned combat veteran of twenty-five, Connelly couldn’t resist yanking the kid’s chain. “You could stand on the ground and strike a match on our underside.” Connelly crossed his arms and grinned at the kid’s expression. Gotcha! “Relax. She’s good.”
        “Best you’ll ever have,” Nika quipped from her seat, her eyes never leaving her screen.
        “Cut the chatter,” Kramer ordered everyone. Quit distractin’ our pilot, she didn’t say. She didn’t have to. Quiet reigned on the bridge.
        “Here we go, people,” was all the warning Nika gave them before she put Harbinger on a hard, gut-wrenching course, turning the run into an insane roller coaster ride. Dip left, hard swing to the right, a stomach-dropping lift upward, and an equally unsettling drop back down. Hard left. Jink up and to the right again. Torque threw Nika against her harness, loose objects still unsecured hit the deck as the ship screamed along the riverbed, following the path the river had cut eons before the first terraformers kissed dirt.
        She heard someone behind her getting sick. From the swearing she knew it wasn’t Connelly or Kramer. Nika grinned.
        Should’a left the eggs at breakfast alone, kid.
        It was one of the craziest runs Nika had ever flown. Five kilometers barely two hundred feet above the deck at full speed, twisting, turning, and pushing the small ship in daredevil fashion given their proximity to the ground. Twice she heard Kramer swear under her breath. Nika would have laughed from the sheer joy of it, but it took all her concentration not to frag the Harbinger across the landscape.
        When they finally settled their struts to the ground, Connelly checked their beacon. They were still broadcasting their faked Alliance signal, which he confirmed to Kramer with a nod.
        Kramer threw off her straps and stood up, glancing at the very green kid who’d lost his breakfast. “Clean that up, Mister Chen,” she said calmly. “Nice flying, Earhart. Now… Where’s our package?”
        Connelly shook his head. “We’ve still got eight minutes before we should expect contact, ma’am,” he replied tightly. “Sensors are showing that squad has changed course, too, though they’re not coming as fast as we did. They’re going to be here in ... about ten minutes, it looks like.”

        Mike was down to the last sniper rifle, the other two already emptied and discarded as they’d made their best speed to the alt-LZ. The skiff was still overhead, no doubt directing the Feds on the ground to their position and so far, it had been content to merely dog their footsteps and strafe them. After the initial run, Mike realized the skiff wasn’t tasked to kill them but to herd them to a predetermined location, an ambush. That told him the Feds wanted Li back alive. Although it boded well for the information Li claimed he carried with him, it didn’t give Mike any hope as to his own fate should the Feds prove successful. If he was going down, he might as well make the enemy work for it. Time to get under cover and sweep their back trail once more.
        Mike spied moonlight gleaming on a rocky outcropping and gauged the shadow beneath. A shallow cave or a deep overhang. A tight fit, but good enough for their purposes.
        “This way,” Mike hissed, yanking Li off stride as he changed their direction upslope. Once they were under cover, Li collapsed against the rock, nearly sobbing as he sucked air. Mike wasn’t unaffected, either—it had been a while since he’d had to push himself to this extreme, and his hands shook from fatigue as he shouldered the rifle and scanned the area below through its scope.
        There. Bogies at ten, twelve, and one o’clock.
        Breathing deeply to steady himself, Mike took careful aim and squeezed off three shots. Three kills. No bullets left.
        “Time to go, get up.”
        “Oh, God…no…”
        “What do you want, mon ami? Live or die?”
        “I wanna live.”
        “Then move.”
        Mike left the rifle behind in the rocks, ridding himself of its dead weight and scrambling out from cover, keeping a firm hand on Li. Military though the other man may have been, he was no hardened infantry grunt and Mike cursed again how the extraction had gone south. A desk driver, a paper pusher, Li was healthy enough on the whole but was in no shape for a cross-country marathon. Mike, on the other hand, had spent the better part of the past two years doing this sort of thing, gathering intel by putting his boots on the ground…and then running in them. Even so, once he was safe aboard the Harbinger and they were well out of here, he was going to find a nice quiet corner of the ship and collapse. Sleep for a week. If he was lucky.
        Don’t get ahead of yourself.
        He eyed the terrain and checked it against the topo map he’d memorized on the way in, reckoning their relative position. Down that draw to the left, hit the river bed at the bottom, hang a right to the south. Exposed as hell to that damned skiff. Trees lined the banks, he saw, spying their canopies by the landscape they occluded. Scant cover, but probably enough. Mike assessed the man panting raggedly beside him. Ten more minutes, maybe fifteen, before Li would have nothing left in him. Mike just hoped Harbinger would be there before that happened. He tightened his grip on Li and pushed on.

        “Shi! Captain, our little waltz just turned into a fuckin’ fare-thee-well,” Connelly barked suddenly into the silence of the bridge.
        Kramer looked up from her position hunched over Nika’s shoulder, unfazed by the language. “Details.”
        Nika shook her head, thinking their luck had been too good to count on it lasting. She fired the engines back up without waiting for the order.
        Connelly briefed the captain as the engines spun up to speed. “Sensors are showing a skiff hovering at the bottom of the ravine where our package is supposed to hit the river’s edge. Comm chatter’s got a full squad chasing them, coming out of a blind no more than half a klik to the west of them, as well as a half squad from a scout ship that just popped on the scope between us and them.”
        Kramer didn’t even bother swearing. Her expression said it for her. Her voice was icy calm as she called into the ship’s comms, “We’re going in hot. Harrington, get a team on that ramp and arm ’em for bear.”
        Nika pulled up on the yoke, got their struts off the ground, and put Harbinger in the air. Pouring on the speed, she snapped the branches off three treetops on her way aloft, rounding the hill and rising above the radar floor. The Feds latched onto them a second later and an order barked clearly through the bridge comms.
        “IAV Lancet, this is the IAV Harkin. Status report! Where the hell’d you come from?”
        Kramer snapped her fingers and Connelly jumped on the airwaves.
        “Harkin, Lancet. We’re on a training run with our new pilot. He’s pretty green. Just clipped a stand of trees.” Brian winked at Nika, though she paid him no attention, engrossed as she was with flying badly enough to mimic an inexperienced pilot while yet keeping them on course and alive. “Our scope’s a dog’s breakfast. What’s going on? Do you need assistance?”
        “We’ve got a hard target on the run toward the river,” replied the Harkin. “We could use more eyes in the sky, definitely. Thirty degrees west of your current heading, two kliks out. There’s a skiff holding position on the target, but they’ve lost him in the trees.”
        Connelly cut the comm, clapped the handset to his chest, and crowed, “Oh, Christ, that’s priceless!” Composing himself, he turned it back on and calmly replied, “We copy, Harkin. ETA one minute. We’ll contact you when we’ve acquired the target.”
        “Acknowledged. Harkin out.”
        Connelly snickered and cut the channel off.
        Kramer just shook her head at him and commed Harrington. “Load ’em up with whatever Fed rounds we’ve got, Harry. They think we’re one of them, helping apprehend a fugitive.”
        Nika had the ship in position as directed, and she glanced at Kramer. “We’re going to have to break radio silence with our contact. Otherwise, he’s going to think we’re one of them, too.”
        She’d no sooner said it when they heard their contact hailing them on the comm.
        “Bandleader, Tango. Our dance card’s lookin’ full. Cut in and spell us for a set?”
        “Copy, Tango. Changing dance partners in under two,” Connelly replied and cut the channel. He glanced over at Kramer. “We’ll waltz right in and pick him up. That little pinger he gave us to cover our asses is turning out to be a godsend earlier than we thought.”
        “We better hope he has a replacement. We’re about to burn the Lancet ID in a big way,” Kramer said tensely, her eyes on the screens Nika used. Thermal imaging picked up the life signs they were looking for, but they quickly vanished back into the foliage and were obscured. Kramer pointed to the spot, and Nika nodded.
        “Ramp going down,” Nika warned the team waiting on the ramp via her comm. And she nodded to Brian to go ahead as she flew in low, going in fast and hard. Their contact and his package crouched in the underbrush near the river a kilometer and a half ahead, and they would be overrun unless Harbinger could intercept them ahead of the Feds.
        “Jack-in-the-box,” Kramer rapped out.
        “Already there, ma’am,” Nika said as she sent Harbinger screaming out of the deep riverbed to pull up even with the bank, hovering above the LZ a mere yard off the ground.
        Connelly switched to external comms, broadcasting over the landscape, “This is the IAV Lancet. You are surrounded. Surrender now and you will not be harmed.”

        Mike drew them to a halt at the edge of the riverbed, taking cover under the trees and brush overhanging its bank. Li was spent, unable to go any further. Pity Mike couldn’t say the same for the man’s mouth.
        “Shit! We’re dead, we’re fuckin’ dead.”
        “Shut up, you.” Not that Li was too far off the mark. Mike knew they were already flanked and pinned to their position. There was nowhere left to run, nowhere but the exposed riverbed and a quick death by bullets if they were lucky. A slow death by torture if they weren’t so lucky. Two’s already come and gone. Where the hell is our ride? Listening to Li whine, Mike briefly entertained the idea of using the man for a club to bludgeon his way out of the net he knew was tightening around them, and then dismissed it. He had a job to do and he was going to finish it. Mike chambered a round in his pistol, knowing he was down to his last remaining clip. He had ten shots left and then he’d be down to his knife and his bare hands. Shitty odds, but he’d faced them before and won.
        Brush crackled to their right and Mike sighted down his pistol, waiting for the first of their pursuers to step out from cover. There…. Head and shoulders, partially obscured, but a sure target. His finger tightened on the trigger.
        The roar of engines split the night, coming suddenly out of the riverbed. A male voice boomed overhead.
        “This is the IAV Lancet. You are surrounded. Surrender now and you will not be harmed.”
        Welcome to the party, y’all. Glad you could make it.
        The Fed in Mike’s sights ducked away as Harbinger’s engine wash sent grit and other debris flying. Mike took his finger off the trigger and grabbed Li.
        “Let’s go, Cinderella. It’s pumpkin-time.”
        “No! They’re Feds!”
        Li wrapped his arms around the slender trunk of a juvenile tree and refused to budge. Mike punched him hard enough to loosen the man’s grip and hauled him along.
        “They’re fake Feds. They’re one of ours.”
        “How do you know?
        Mike was spared a reply as bullets started flying.

        On the bridge of the Harbinger, Connelly glanced at his captain. “We need a little confusion to get out of here. Got an idea.”
        Kramer nodded. “Run with it.” She readily trusted her XO’s ability to sow confusion and dismay.
        Connelly opened the internal comm. “Harry, start shooting off the ramp.”
        Harrington hesitated only a second. “If you say so!”
        The team on the ramp started firing toward the ground, carefully close to but avoiding their package in the brush. At which point, the Fed troops, believing they were under fire, started shooting back. Connelly opened the ship-to-ship comms and shouted into it. “Lancet taking fire! Get our ground troops over here for backup!”
        A confused voice replied, “Our ground troops are there. What the hell’s going on?”

        Cutting loose with a gutter curse, Mike didn’t waste any more time but grabbed Li and hauled ass for the ramp of the waiting ship. They crossed fifty yards of open space riddled with flying lead as the Harbinger’s crew lay down covering fire over their heads into the surrounding brush line, and by the grace of God Mike managed to make it to the ramp unscathed. Li wasn’t as lucky, taking a graze on the arm. Mike shoved the man past the first of the Harbinger crew and hit the controls for the ramp.
        “We’re on. GO!” he yelled into the comm.
        The ramp rose and they dusted off, enemy fire whining in their wake.

        “Get us out of here,” Kramer snapped out and strapped in. Behind her Connelly did the same. Even Chen, still a little green about the gills, was ready. As for anyone else still stupid enough to be rattling around loose….too damn bad. We’re a warship, not a pleasure cruiser. Come on, honey….fly .
        Kramer sent her prayer winging heavenward. God’s answer came through her pilot’s hands. Harbinger swept upward and made a flat run at full speed. Full stop to top speed in one gut-wrenching second, she again flew barely at treetop level, beneath the Feds’ radar and making anyone on the ground scatter.
        The comms squawked with confused requests for status reports from all quarters. The ground troops screamed about being fired on, the Harkin kept requesting the Lancet to verify acquisition of the target, and the skiff’s crew demanded to know why gunfire was being exchanged. It would clearly take a while for the Alliance troops to sort out what had happened right under their noses.
        “Take her north, then jink east when we’re clear and make orbit on our alternate ID,” Kramer said after a full minute of pulling high Gs as they retraced their insane route up the river bed. “Connelly, get us a heading to the rendezvous point. We’ll make the transfer there.”
        “On it,” Connelly acknowledged and got to work, fingers on the keyboard typing fast against the rearward pull.
        Only when the transponder code had been changed to their alternate call sign did Nika bring Harbinger, now flying at a sedate and perfectly casual speed, back onto the radar grid. For all intents and purposes, they were now an entirely different vessel with no connection to the action on the ground.
        “Contact and package secured,” Harrington said over the comm.
        “Stand down,” Kramer replied. “Good work, Harry. When we kiss dirt, first round’s on me.”
        “Roger that.”
        Kramer cut the channel and cradled the comm. She spoke to the general air on the bridge.
        “That includes all’a you, too. Even you, Chen, but if you puke up the beer I paid for, I’ll make you clean it off the floor with your tongue.”
        “Yes, ma’am.”
        Kramer grinned. If what their contact said about the package’s information was true, that round was going to be champagne instead of beer. We’ll see, she thought, turning her attention back to the task of slipping out from under the Feds’ net. We’ll see.

Part 2